Have Camera, Will Travel

South Australian Judd Overton talks about his crazy last year as a trans-pacific cinematographer, and the transition to ‘Covid normal’ productions interview by Darcy Yuille

Judd Overton (behind the camera) on location filming ‘Ride the Eagle’ – PHOTO John Platt

Like a lot of us these days, Overton and I meet online. He has a sunny beach behind him, courtesy of Zoom, even though he is actually located in Byron Bay. 

AC – How does it feel to be shooting in Australia again? 

JO – It’s great. I’ve got a really lovely crew and we are shooting lots of fun stuff, a real challenge with great comedy, tons of action and lots of adventures. I’m loving it. 

AC – A big difference from 2020? 

JO – Absolutely. This time last year, it was shaping up to be a great year. I was in pre-production for Ghosts, a CBS network pilot. We had picked up the gear, the crew were on, we were ready to go. We were having a little celebratory lunch to say ‘here we go’ when the news came through and we had to shut down. Initially it was for two weeks but eventually turned into eleven months. 

AC – What did you do? 

JO – I went through a period of not knowing, basically waiting around in my apartment and wearing a mask and not going out, for two or three months. Dates kept getting pushed back. I had done a lot of pre-production on the fourth series of No Activity (Overton has filmed the previous Australian and US iterations of the show) and then that fell over. 

Luckily, when No Activity fell over, director Trent O’Donnell told me about a script he had called Ride the Eagle written with Jake Johnson. An independent film set in Yosemite. We set up a hub where everyone went through Covid protocols; basically five actors, single camera, minimal crew, all shot at a beautiful and Autumnal times of day. We got back to Los Angeles after a couple of weeks out of it in the mountains and it had all gone mental, Hollywood mental. 

AC – Did you think about coming home? 

JO – Absolutely, but then No Activity had a resurgence as an animation, and the team ended using a lot of my references because we had totally prepped the show and knew the ins and outs. I got to work on the show and share the lens choices, the lighting and coverage choices and all that sort of thing. Flight School Studio, the team who took on the animation, were very creative with how they maintained the improvisational style; sending iPads, lights and cameras to the actors so they could all interact live online with the director. It was a pretty interesting sidestep. 

AC – Did you feel like things would be picking up? 

JO – There was a lot of positivity, and everyone could see the demand the pandemic had created. I got a gig in Atlanta as cinematographer on Young Rock filming Dwayne Johnson for each episode. I spent two months on that, a lot of it was planning and working out how to integrate from transitions, flashbacks and different elements.

The show tells Johnson’s life through three different actors, through three different periods, and the main unit shoot was in Brisbane with Martin McGrath ACS and Katie Milwright ACS. There was a lot of back-and-forth with the team in Australia. Showrunner Nahnatchka Khan flew out to Atlanta and we shot for three weeks working out a lot of visual effects, composite crowd scenes and the like. Because of Covid and restrictions on the number of people who could congregate and how, we’d be shooting one element of a scene on one day, then another on the next, and slowly cobbling everything together. A lot of logistics. 

Overton’s camera on location – PHOTO Supplied

AC – Did things start to pick up once new shooting protocols came into place? 

JO – Filmmaking is still big business in the United States. There was no way they were not going to solve the problem of production, either through animation as in No Activity or through working out strong protocols. I was able to jump on the delayed network pilot for Ghosts after Young Rock and that took me through the rest of 2020. I’d already done all the pre-production, so we were well placed to shoot and the crew were amazing. 

There were situations where a crew member would be exposed to the virus picking up gear, and that night you had to find a person to fill in, but for the most part this was rare and everyone did well to not go out and get in the way of the virus. It was tough because people were just doing what they had been used to doing for years, but the situation was risky. I’m very grateful for the crew on that project for working so hard to keep each other safe. Ghosts has just been picked up for season one, so that’s encouraging. 

After that, with the state of the world. I thought it was probably not a bad time to come home. Through my contacts shooting in the United States, I was able to get the current gig shooting a streaming show based out of Byron Bay. 

AC – What are the differences between shooting a network show versus a streaming show? 

JO – Network shows, the acquisition is still high-definition (HD), so there are less restrictions on cameras and less data obviously. When you start working with streaming services, they are all calling for high-dynamic range (HDR) and 4K acquisition at a minimum. The list of approved cameras is still quite small. I love using the Blackmagic URSA Mini 12K camera, but as it is new, I’ve had to do a lot of testing for Netflix. I’ve received approval to use it on the current project, and I think it will be a really good test case. 

AC – Have you been using the Blackmagic Mini URSA 12K on any of your other projects? 

JO – I’ve now used the URSA Mini 12K camera on two network shows, the feature film with O’Donnell and my latest show for Netflix. The advantages of the higher resolution are obvious for things such as visual effects plate work, however, I have also used the camera at a range of other resolutions, specifically 8K which offers a comparable data rate to the ARRI Alexa LF and 4K to shoot 120fps. 

I’ve also used it to shoot stunts and action, where we often run multiple cameras. There is no ‘one stop shop’ when it comes to visual storytelling. I choose the right camera and lens package for every job but I do feel that with budgets and schedules decreasing, these cameras put a lot of creative power in the hands of the filmmakers. I also think Blackmagic have learned along the way. They’ve listened to filmmakers and I love that if I ever have a problem or a thought, I can go to them and share my ideas. There are also groups of cinematographers who have connected around the world. We share information and experiences about cameras and share gear when we need something. 

AC – Do you find any major differences between shooting in the United States versus Australia? 

JO – It’s interesting. I used to operate a lot in Australia, but now when I shoot, I barely touch a camera, and I think that’s one of the big differences. That is starting to change with the streaming services investment in drama. I also think the digital intermediate technician (DIT) role is still quite different. There are a few people who do the full service, grading on set and the like, but many are still operating as data wranglers. I think we have a way to go on developing this role. It’s a great opportunity. 

Judd Overton is an award-winning Australian cinematographer of film, television, commercial and documentary.

Darcy Yuille is an ongoing contributor to Australian Cinematographer Magazine. He runs a production company in Melbourne.

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